Let’s take a closer look at AL MVP race

I’m sensing a groundswell for Justin Verlander as American League MVP. And I don’t like it.

That’s not to say I won’t vote for Verlander — I just might (and, yes, I am one of the 28 voters for the award). But all the talk of Verlander is masking the legitimate candidacies of others, most notably Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

If I’m going to vote for a starting pitcher for MVP, I want his case to be as clear-cut as possible. And Verlander’s is not.

The race continues this weekend as Ellsbury and another strong MVP candidate, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson, meet at Yankee Stadium (MLB on FOX, 4 p.m. ET Saturday).

Spare me the argument of East Coast bias, anti-Tigers bias or any other bias. The question is whether Verlander, as a starting pitcher, has separated himself enough to edge middle-of-the-diamond players such as Ellsbury and Granderson — the kind of candidates I prefer — not to mention corner sluggers such as Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

At least four national baseball writers have indicated they are leaning toward Verlander for the award, though it is not known whether all are voters. Several writers, including FOXSports.com’s Tracy Ringolsby, have made the important point that under the criteria listed by the Baseball Writers Association of America, a starting pitcher indeed merits consideration.

But in the rush to justify Verlander, I fear he is being anointed.

As I’ve written before, the criteria are so subjective that a voter can pretty much do as he or she pleases. Verlander will be on my ballot somewhere, probably in the top three. I’m just not sure he will be No. 1.

The principal argument for Verlander — the Tigers would not have won the AL Central without him — is all but irrefutable. I also agree that the value of a top starter is not just the day he pitches but the day before, when his manager can empty his bullpen, and the day after, when the bullpen is rested. Three days out of five.

But here is why I like Ellsbury:

He has appeared in 152 of the Red Sox’s 156 games.

• He is an elite defender in center, markedly better than Granderson, according to advanced metrics.

• He ranks third in the AL in slugging since the All-Star Game — an unusual achievement for a leadoff man and a major separator from Bautista, who has declined markedly in the second half.

• He is more than simply a Fenway creation: Ellsbury’s OPS-plus — that is, his OPS adjusted to his league and ballpark — ranks seventh in the AL, just behind Granderson.

• And, finally, he is the only AL player this season with 100 runs, 90 RBI, 25 homers and 30 stolen bases and one of only 22 players in history to reach those marks. The Brewers’ Ryan Braun and Dodgers’ Matt Kemp have done it in the NL. Granderson is six stolen bases short. 

In fact, many of the arguments for Ellsbury also ring true for Granderson, with Ellsbury’s superior defense the major difference between them. (Bautista is the best overall offensive player, but, yes, I’m bothered that he plays for a non-contender. Look at what Ellsbury is experiencing now; the level of intensity is just different.)

Granderson, who once struggled against lefties, actually has hit them better than righties this season; his 16 home runs off lefties are the most by a left-handed hitter since Ryan Howard had 16 in 2007. Granderson’s other splits — home/road, pre/post All-Star Game — are virtually identical, a testament to his consistency.

There is one Granderson stat, courtesy of the Yankees’ PR department, that I just love: He is the first center fielder to record at least 130 runs and 115 RBI in a season since the Braves’ Dale Murphy in 1983 and the first in the AL since Mickey Mantle in 1961.

I know those are counting stats, generated in part by the strength of the Yankees’ offense. I know Ellsbury also benefits from being part of the Red Sox’s powerhouse lineup. But Ellsbury ranks first in Fangraphs’ version of wins above replacement (WAR) and fifth in Baseball-Reference’s version. Verlander is second in Baseball-Reference’s version and only third among pitchers in Fangraphs’.

Two of my good friends and respected colleagues, ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark and Yahoo.com’s Jeff Passan, have made the point that Verlander’s season is statistically quite comparable to that of the last starting pitcher to win the MVP award, Roger Clemens in 1986.

True enough. But if you go by ERA-plus — ERA adjusted to league and ballpark — Verlander isn’t close to what Greg Maddux did in 1994 and ’95 or what Pedro Martinez did in ’99 and 2000.

Neither Maddux nor Martinez won an MVP. Martinez, who in 2000 had the best ERA-plus and lowest WHIP in modern history, finished fifth that year.

Listen, we all cherry-pick numbers; that’s part of the fun. Here’s one more in support of Ellsbury: His offensive statistics are superior to those of teammate Dustin Pedroia in ’08, when Pedroia won the MVP.

I don’t want to come off as anti-Verlander; I love him as a pitcher and as a competitor. All I’m saying is that the race is extremely close — so close, I’ll probably examine it a dozen more times before making my decision.

Every voter should.

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